Triangles in the Sky 

Revised in 2018

"Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets".

The mission has ended, but it relates to our study where we learned that Johannes Kepler, after whom the spacecraft is named, was ahead of our time! He defended Copernicus in De Stella nova years before the older Galileo and wrote that the universe is full of extraterrestrial life.


    Our report begins in 1604 CE when a supernova appeared in the sky and Kepler began to study the so-called "New Star at the foot of the Serpent Holder". It was his duty as court astronomer of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague to stop measuring the orbits of Mars and take an official position because "almost every theologian, philosopher, doctor, and mathematician felt obliged to publish their findings" (Kepler). Some of the superstitious predictions, especially the comparisons with the Star of Bethlehem caused some unrest, and the astronomer responded with a German article in 1604 while the "new star" was still twinkling in the sky. A detailed study followed with "De Stella nova..." in 1606, a Latin book with two appendices, of which one investigates the date of Christ's birth. Only because a Polish Jesuit had written a book in 1605 about a four-year error in the Christian calendar could Kepler dare to suggest that Christ may have been born four years earlier than the Church believed. He calculated the planetary positions from 7 to 5 BCE and came up with a controversial theory: The Star of Bethlehem was not a divine miracle, but a natural, astronomical event. While disputing each of the superstitious theories that were discussed at the time, he suggested cautiously that the mysterious star may be a recurring event which could relate to the phoenix myth. Because this would be a major discovery we will examine it in several articles. 

        It is rarely mentioned that the fame of Galileo and Newton rests on Kepler's shoulders. Or that Newton was a passionate alchemist and wrote more works about religious speculation than science. Such interdisciplinary excursions were part of the Baroque zeitgeist and allowed Kepler to publish a few religiously themed works as well, which used to be ignored by modern astronomers. It changed on December 19, 1936, when the "Science News" in Washington ran a brief article to acknowledge the Christmas season:

"Was Star Of Bethlehem Three Bright Planets? Modern astronomers suggest that it may have been the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars grouped closely together in a little triangle. Such a grouping, astronomers calculate, occurred about Feb. 25, in the year 6 BC." The article ends with a list of planetariums that project the ancient skies of Judea around Christmas "where the three bright planets are thus shown in a miraculously bright triangle." (1) 

        This news item was attacked a few weeks later by the astronomer M.W. Burke-Gaffney S.J. at a Jesuit Seminary in Toronto, and his paper published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in early 1937 (2). The Jesuit identifies Kepler as the discoverer of the "miraculous triangle" although he isn't mentioned, probably because "Kepler" rhymes with "Hitler" which would have dampened the Christmas spirit. How he summarizes Kepler's alleged superstitions reveals a hostile agenda:

"The astrologers of old observed that Jupiter was in conjunction with Saturn about every twenty years. They calculated that this conjunction took place in the same part of the sky every 800 years. In December 1603 there was to be a conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Sagittarius, which to astrologers was one of the points of the Fiery Trigon. In the autumn of 1604, when Jupiter and Saturn were still in the Fiery Trigon, and not far apart, Mars was to come, and be in conjunction with Saturn on September 26, and with Jupiter on Oct. 9. Thus in early October 1604 Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would be at the vertices of a triangle, forming a fiery triangle in the Fiery Trigon. A conjunction in the Fiery Trigon presaged great things; a fiery triangle there was surpassed as an omen only by a comet."

   Even though this presaged great things for astrologers, it is rather telling that Burke-Gaffney published a diagram without the "fiery triangle". He chose October, 17, 1604, when a break in the clouds allowed Kepler to see the supernova for the first time and, curiously, when it topped a fiery triangle with Saturn and Jupiter after Mars had moved on. For lack of a better explanation, it seems the Jesuit wanted to create the impression that Kepler believed the "New Star" was connected to the three planets. We traced their positions back to the right, because planets move along the ecliptic from West to East, from right to left, and added these sketches to the diagram to visualize Kepler's date: The fiery triangle formed on September 16 but we also noticed that a triangle of watery symbolism appeared about two weeks later! Why did the Jesuit fail to mention the second triangle? Was it because these triangles fuse into a star, which could invite an esoteric interpretation? After getting his seminarians slightly confused, the Jesuit mounted an all-out attack on Kepler's credibility by quoting a text he labeled "typically Keplerian, born of erudition wedded to astrology by misguided genius" because eight years after "De Stella nova" and after he had discovered the true orbits of the planets, Kepler made some absurd, astrological references to the Star of Bethlehem which contradict the astronomical laws he had established (3):

"This star was not of the ordinary run of comets or new stars, but by a special miracle moved in the lower layer of the atmosphere. The Magi were of Chaldea, where astrology was born, of which this is a dictum: Great conjunctions of planets in cardinal points, especially in the equinoctial points of Aries and Libra, signify a universal change of affairs; and a cometary star appearing at the same time tells of the rise of a king..." (Kepleri opera omnia, Frisch, vol. IV, pp. 246-7)

       The way Burke-Gaffney bashes Kepler must have made the lecture quite entertaining! As a follow up, he dismisses Kepler's views about the great conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars by citing the international scholars Ludwig Ideler (Berlin) and Charles Pritchard  (Oxford):

"Pritchard does not even consider the approach of Mars to Jupiter and Saturn in February and March BC 6, since neither Ideler nor Kepler had suggested that these three planets could be mistaken for a single star, for in Ideler's words: at about this time Jupiter and Saturn lost themselves in the rays of the evening sun..."

       The Jesuit points out that Matthew's gospel uses the Greek "aster", which is a star and not a planet, and concludes from Pritchard's calculations that the sun was already 24 degrees from Saturn on Feb. 12, 6 BCE, two weeks before the "miraculous triangle" would form. During such a lively lecture, a slight miscalculation of the sun's position by Pritchard and Ideler's vague reference "at about this time" is all he needed to debunk the article: 

"This means that from about the middle of February, Saturn and Mars would be too close to the sun to be seen by the naked eye. Hence the statement that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn formed a triangle in the sky about Feb. 25, BC. 6 (Science News Letter, Dec. 19, 1936, p. 393) is misleading, inasmuch as the triangle could not be seen."

        This closed the subject because the popular Christmas shows were discontinued all over the world. If the triangle was this close to the sun it was invisible and meaningless. After all, the Magi are celebrated as wise men  not as fools! In view of such a brilliant performance, conspiracy theorists might even suggest the Vatican was so grateful that the "well-loved astronomer" eliminated the superstitious beliefs of a misguided Lutheran that it donated the funds for an observatory in his name anonymously, of course (4).

       Thirty years later, and thanks to the astronomers Robert Victor (Abrams Planetarium, East Lansing) and John Mosley (Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles), we had solid proof that the Jesuit was mistaken: Victor saw the Mars-Saturn conjunction on February 20, 1966, with the naked eye although the planets were closer to the sun than in 6 BCE and observed from a higher latitude than the Near East. Mosley, who introduced this writer to the controversy in the 1980s, pointed out Victor's report and confirms in an article that the miraculous triangle was clearly visible (5), which restores the claims in the Science News.

          Unfortunately, when English speaking scientists want to study Kepler, they have to start with bad translations or worse, with Burke-Gaffney's book "Kepler and the Jesuits" and are led to believe he was an opportunist "wedded to astrology by a misguided genius." Here is the second opinion of Albert Einstein, a contemporary of the Jesuit and a wise man of our era, who characterizes Kepler as a finely sensitive person, passionately dedicated to his research for a deeper insight into the essence of natural events, who, despite internal and external difficulties, reached his loftily placed goal" (6).

          We should add that modern astronomers still rely on Burke-Gaffney because he had such an impact on his peers at the planetariums, while the findings of Victor and Mosely are ignored by them. Fortunately, even amateurs can simulate today the ancient skies of Judea with planetarium software (7). At left is the view from Jerusalem at 6:46 PM on February 25, 6 BCE, when the planets appeared above the Western horizon (the line marked W) as soon as the Sun had set. Starry Night software proves at right that all three planets remain above the horizon for an hour as it keeps getting darker, until Saturn is first to follow the Sun at 7:46 PM.

         Our interest in these triangles was inspired in the 1980s by certain allegories in grail romance where the early poets connect the microcosm and macrocosm with "three drops of blood in the snow" and a massing of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. We realized decades later that Kepler explores the same esoteric link in "De nive Sexangula" (8), a playful treatise about the mystery why every snowflake has six corners.           

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1.  Science News Letter, Washington D.C., December 19, 1936, p. 393


2.  The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, (Toronto, 1937), pp. 416-25


3.  M.W. Burke-Gaffney, S.J., Kepler and the Jesuits, (Milwaukee, 1944), p. 56


4. "The observatory at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada is named in honor of Reverend Burke-Gaffney, S. J  (1896-1979). It is located on the top of the 22-storey Loyola residence tower, and was made possible by an anonymous benefactor who wished to honor the university's well-loved astronomer".


5.  John Mosley, Common Errors in "Star of Bethlehem" Planetarium Shows, Griffith Observatory, (Los Angeles, 1981), available on-line, check 7., last accessed 11-1-2018. According to Mosley: "The massing was clearly visible. Mars and Saturn were in conjunction on February 20, 6 B.C. when the longitudes of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sun were 351.2, 358.6, 352.0, and 329.8 degrees respectively as interpolated from Tuckerman's Planetary, Lunar, and Solar Positions. (Mars and Saturn were at equal longitude 12 hours later but had set by then; the numbers given here are for 7:00 p.m., Babylon time.) The sun was 21 degrees west of the westernmost two planets and 29 degrees west of Jupiter. All three planets were still visible above the horizon after the end of evening twilight. Robert Victor of Abrams Planetarium clearly saw the Mars-Saturn conjunction of February 20, 1966, even though these planets were much closer to the sun than in 6 B.C. and were observed from a higher latitude than the Near East."


6.  Carola Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler - Life and Letters, (New York, 1951), pp. 9-13


7.  Starry Night Pro 6, Simulation Curriculum Corp., (Minneapolis, 2009).


8. Andrea Dortmann, Winter Facets: Traces and tropes of the cold, Studies in Modern German Literature, Vol. 104. (Bern, 2007), p. 69. The author writes that most translators overlook the full title "Strena Seu De nive Sexangula", a bi-lingual word play that suggests "Star(s) and the six-cornered snow flake".




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